In November 2015 the City of Paris was hit by a series of terrorist attacks claimed by ISIL. Europe was shaken. Refugees from war-torn areas fleeing horrific violence were dealt yet another cruelty as public sentiment turned against them. A pervasive rise in Islamophobia and vitriol erupted not only toward those displaced by fighting in the Middle East, but also against the many millions of Muslim residents across Europe.
On the day the United Kingdom decided to join the bombing campaign against Syria, struggling with the rhetoric of hate and violence, I took inspiration in George Orwell’s words:
“If you can feel that staying human is worthwhile, even when it can’t have any result whatever, you’ve beaten them.”
I founded Radical Love as a platform to promote love through art. A week later we held “Happy Christmas (War isn’t Over),” a night of music and poetry to raise money for Hand in Hand for Syria, and sent £1270 to them and the International Rescue Committee. Since the beginning, so many friends got on board and have given so much time and energy to Radical Love.
Two months later, in February 2016, Radical Love #Female Lust started formulating as an artistic response to the ever-raging criticism of female behavior and use of stereotypes to deny shared experience and humanity. Frustrated with the burial of female voices across history, we found inspiration in those that rang out loud and proud across the Arab world over a thousand years ago. This look back and away helped illuminate something of a female energy, timeless and without boundary.
The spark came in the form of a poem by Arab Muslim Princess Wallada bint al Mustakfi, written in 11th century Cordoba:
I am made for higher goals and by Allah
I am going my way with pride.
I allow my lover to touch my cheek
And bestow my kiss on him who craves it.
Stumbled across by accident, I was struck that in the 11th century Princess Wallada was essentially making claims to autonomy and freedom of sexuality for which women in 2017 are still fighting. At a time when the term “empowerment” has been co-opted to sell us everything from razor blades to shoes, it felt thrilling to come across someone with the courage to embody it. She was so sure of her worth that Princess Wallada had these words embroidered on her (transparent) tunic. This amazing Muslim poet was the daughter of a caliph who inherited her father’s estate, and ran her own palace and literary salon, which many of the great minds of the time attended. She gave lessons to the women of her court and held her love affairs openly and unapologetically, writing rhymes in praise of her lover Ibn Zaydún and, when things went bad, lambasting him. This all took place in what is today Spain. Yet, so many of us have never heard about her.
I looked for more poems. Many more followed; leading to a collection, collated by Abdullah al-Udhari, of incredible poetry written by women across the Arab world over a thousand years ago. The canon includes work by a Jewish poet, some pre-Islam writers, but mostly Muslim poets writing between the 7th and 12th centuries.
Sharing them with a modern audience has been smooth since they read like the best pop lyrics – short and sweet in their intense defiance, desire, lovesick longing, pride, and fun. The lust – whether for sex or simply life itself – was so apparent the title suggested itself. Written by (mainly Muslim) Arab women ranging from slaves, to wits, to princesses, they challenge preconceptions of faith, of class, and of the female experience long ago. They are a deliberate and timeless resistance to the silencing and patronizing of females. Also, they are just sublime in their intensity and beauty:
I urge you to come faster than the wind, to mount my breast and firmly dig and plough my body and don’t let go until you’ve flushed me thrice.
–I’timad Arrumaikiyya, 11th century, Seville
We decided to showcase the works of poetry in a way that captures their dynamic spirit and brings them to the present in a new way. We asked different artists from around the world, half of whom are Arab and/or Muslim, to collaborate with these long-gone poets, asserting their vitality in the face of those who would deny it.
We wanted a beautiful mix of voices and spent months researching female artists, contacting those who captured something unique and personal in their work. The 48 women in the show were so incredibly generous with their involvement. I had no prior history in the art world and with so many overseas in the United States, Middle East, and Africa, they would never meet me and so had no way of knowing what the show would be.
There are so many, but the full list includes emerging painters from Hong-Kong, Libya, Jamaica, and Saudi Arabia; a feminist activist from Peru; Syrian artists who have been displaced; an Ethiopian American “multi-dimensional mural magician”; experimental Spanish, Egyptian, Indonesian, and Turkish photographers; a British Nigerian-Togolese poet; British Pakistani illustrator and British Indian jeweller; an English paper-cutting artist; sculptors from Japan, the United States, and Ireland.
Each artist received a parcel in the post containing the poem specially chosen for them to interpret, written on two scrolls in the original Classical Arabic and its English translation. Each poem was sent to two women (24 poems chosen in total). As an actress, I was curious to see how two different artists from different cultures, working independently using different mediums, would interpret the same piece of text. We didn’t discuss the poem or what they would create in advance so it was a pure instinctive response. The results are brilliant and surprising – from the sensitivity of Syrian painter Aula al Ayoubi, to the irreverence of British Indian illustrator Anu Ambasna, to the magical stained glass created by English artist Tamsin Abbott
Radical Love: Female Lust ran at The Crypt Gallery, St. Pancras, from Valentine’s Day to March 5th. This incredibly atmospheric space was used as a burial ground, and later a bunker for protection during both World Wars. Here the words of these poets, who have long been silent, rose again in the art of the modern woman, all watched over by the Caryatids outside.
So many of my friends came together to help, most especially Rebecca Roche who did all the publicity material, and the unwavering trust and dedication from everyone involved brought about a bit of a miracle. For three weeks a piece of London belonged to women from Arab and Muslim cultures, celebrating them at a time when they are faced with many pressures. Twenty-four poems by 16 of their ancestors, written one-thousand years ago, were showcased in Arabic and English; the art of Iraqi, Saudi Arabian, Egyptian, (and especially important Syrian women) Lebanese, Iranian, British African, and Asian Muslim women hung on the walls. The attending audience (1,600 people) were nearly all women, mostly of color, mostly Arab and Muslim. We had mothers and daughters, sisters, schoolgirls, and countless groups of girlfriends taking selfies. All this was done with so much love and hard work (no one got paid), and ZERO funding. We STILL need help to cover costs and continue doing the work so if this feels at all important to you, please DONATE to our IndieGogo.
For further articles including art images, we were featured in Huffington Post USA, Dazed & Confused, Vice, Huffington Post UK, Refinery 29, Les Inrocks (France), ArtRadar, Huck, Sweet (Snapchat mag), Gal-dem, and The Irish Times, among others.
Next up, from May 21-22, 2017, we will take part in the exhibition at the Women of the World Festival, which will continue onto Dublin. Plans are afoot to take it further afield. As with the first event, the heart of Radical Love is to help the vulnerable, and the art is for sale with profits split between artists and a women’s refugee fund in Lebanon, home to so many of Syria’s displaced people. If you would like to donate to the Syrian cause, please visit the Global Fund for Women and learn more.
#FemaleLust is not concerned with faith or politics, so often used to divide rather than unite. Rather these women speak as artists and the show revels in a female lust we see as shared and timeless – whether defined as sexual abandon, a crush, or the delight in knowing your worth. It’s a dialogue between past and present, words and visuals, across different faiths, using various mediums. The life force present in the female knows no such boundaries and we come together to celebrate this. It is our love letter to women all across the world whose resilience, courage, and vitality we celebrate in the show.